Ask me Anything — the Hayek Edition

Gandhi First IgnoreHere’s the last bit from Hayek’s Dec 11 1974 Nobel Prize lecture:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

One of the recurring themes of Hayek’s was the idea that social engineering is quite distinct from engineering of the natural world. With the appropriate technology and scientific knowledge it is possible to engineer machines and use them to control the world of objects, perhaps for the better, but human beings are not objects without volition. Humans have a will of their own and they pursue ends that are dictated by their desires and preferences which are neither fixed nor can be known by others. Social engineering always fails and makes a bad situation worse.

So why do so many people want to undertake an impossible task? I believe H. L. Mencken had the answer. “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” Every one of them — Gandhi, Nehru, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, you name any great socialist leader — cloaked their naked lust to rule and to exercise tyrannical power over others by vehemently insisting that they only want to help humanity.

People, in their desperation, naturally tend to believe their demagoguery and voluntarily give up their freedom in the hope of escaping their misery. That’s tragic because freedom is the only asset people have, and without freedom they have absolutely no hope of salvation. It’s the worst sort of gamble, like when a poor person uses all his meager possessions to buy lottery tickets.

I think the only way to escape this trap is for the people to realize that their most precious possession is their freedom, and to never trade even the littlest bit of it for any amount of promised wealth.

Anyway, let’s discuss what’s on your mind. Ask me anything.  Let me start off with the first question: Why did I put that famous quote of Gandhi at the top of this post?

Answer: In general people are quite ignorant of what a terrible man M. K. Gandhi was. But that aside, too many people mindlessly parrot stuff they believe Gandhi said or wrote. They approvingly quote Gandhi, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” That really idiotic as I have explained here (The Unbearable Silliness of Loving One’s Enemy):

The old eye-for-an-eye thing of the Bible. Gandhi noted that that strategy would make the whole world blind. My analysis suggests that it would have the opposite effect. If you can guarantee that anyone who pokes anyone else’s eyes will have both his eyes poked out, everyone would think a million times before they give in to the temptation of poking anyone’s eyes out. In a Gandhian world, people who enjoy poking people’s eyes would have a terrific old time and a good number of people will have to go through life blind or at least semi-blind. In the non-Gandhian world, no rational person will find it beneficial to poke anyone’s eyes out.

That eye for an eye thing is the sort of nonsense that Gandhi was given to. Superficiality was his specialty. But sometimes reasonable statements are misattributed to him. Gandhi is supposed to have said or written, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Quotes Investigator did its bit and concluded that Gandhi did not say that.

In conclusion, QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the saying to Mohandas Gandhi. QI believes that the statement evolved from a large family of sayings that originated in the nineteenth century. In 1918 a closely similar remark emerged in a speech by Nicholas Klein, a union representative. Gandhi discussed stages that a movement passes through in a collection of writings he published in 1921, but his words did not really match the target expression.

How about that brilliant “Be the change you want to see in the world”? No, though widely reported, Gandhi did not say that either. Quotes Investigator again concluded, “Arleen Lorrance should receive credit for the expression she wrote 1974.”

What’s not widely reported are the idiotic things Gandhi did write, such as advising Hindus to commit suicide instead of resisting Islamic terror, and Jews to also commit suicide instead of resisting the Nazis. So that’s that.

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Ask me Anything — the Hayek Edition”

  1. How would you define Dharma?

    In this blog – you say
    “I must note that people like Aron Ra are non-believers in the context of Abrahamic religions because they are from that tradition. Their opposition to religion is narrowly focused on Christianity and Islam mainly, and to some extent to Judaism. They don’t know anything of the Indic traditions of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In a very important sense, the Indic traditions are not religion in the same sense that the Abrahamic religions are.”

    What is this difference you speak of?

    What is the difference between “Abrahamic God and religions” and Indic traditions, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva etc..?


    1. Iroh:

      Good question. The fundamental problem arises with the different meanings of words that refer to abstractions. Words in one language referring to concrete things — cars, cows, computers — are easy to comprehend and translate into equivalent words in different languages. But we run into difficulties when two different abstract concepts are denoted by the same word. The word “god” means something specific in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. It refers to a supernatural entity that created the world magically, which then stands outside that creation and judges humans (who are also created by that supernatural entity) according to rules that it had created. God, therefore in the JCI tradition, is an “engineer” who makes something. The Indic “god” is not that. It is a principle that is the foundation of all creation. It does not exist apart from the universe. It is the universe. It is all there is, and therefore every bit of the universe is it. Tat tvam asi. Meaning, “you are that.” You and the universe are identical in the same sense that a drop of the ocean is the same as the ocean because they spring from the same source. An ocean is a collection of drops, and the nature of each drop is the same as the nature of the ocean. If you were to understand the nature of any drop, you would also understand the nature of the ocean.

      The English words “religion” and “god” are commonly mistranslated into “dharma” and “bhagwan” (or “deva”). Dharma does not map on to religion, and bhagwan does not have the same connotation and denotation as “god.” The concepts themselves are incommensurable. The concept of god does not exist in Indic traditions, and the concept of bhagwan does not exist in the JCI tradition.

      The easiest way for me is to refer you to a brilliant expositor of Hinduism and Buddhism — Alan Watts (1915 – 1973). Alan Watts clearly distinguishes between the JCI conception of god and the Indic conception. He was able to do that because he trained to be an Episcopalian priest, and later studied Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. One has to know intimately two traditions to be able to draw parallels and distinctions between the two. People who only know one tradition — say, Hinduism — cannot know in what way that tradition differs from another that they don’t know — say, Christianity.

      I will create a page in which I will provide references to his relevant talks, and then edit this comment to link to that page.

      Addendum: Here’s the page Selected Alan Watts Lectures.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello,

        The YouTube videos you have attached in that page have been taken down due to copyright issues. Can you repost from an alternative source?

        Also how do these compare to the ancient Greek and Roman religions, gods like Zeus, Gaia, Atlas etc.., and concepts such as Moirai and Parcae?


        1. Iroh:

          Thanks for alerting me about the video that is taken down due to copyright issues. Unfortunately, I did not take care to note the title of that Alan Watts video. So I can’t figure out what it was that was taken down. I should include the title of the video, not just post the video, in the future so that I can find an alternate video.

          The ancient religion of the Greeks and Romans differ in the conceptions of gods from the god the monotheistic faiths. That is normal. The Greeks and Romans before the advent of Christianity were polytheistic in a way but not the same way that Hindus are referred to as “polytheistic.” Hindu devas are not like the gods of Norse, Greek or Roman mythologies.

          Popularizers like Joseph Campbell have done a great deal of research on that. Campbell also wrote about Hindu gods.

          About Moirai and Parcae — they are the Fates. The fates are immortal (in that they cannot die) but are not eternal (in the sense that they have a birth.) The distinction between eternal and immoral is interesting.

          In Hinduism, the basic principle is Brahman. It is eternal and immortal like the universe. In fact Brahman is congruent with the universe. Then we have different aspects of Brahman — the first division being Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva. All the rest of the devas are different aspects of the eternal Brahman. The taxonomy of devas is pretty complicated and therefore very interesting. The Norse gods are quite simple in contrast to the variety of Hindu devas.


  2. Why should a layman understand/read about foreign policy of nations (if not for entertainment value)? How can a citizen hold the government accountable on foreign policy? Especially when there is so much back-room-diplomacy/wheels-within-wheels/secrets?

    On a slightly different note, how can one individual hold the government (democratically elected) accountable on any issue at all? Can one single vote communicate multiple intent? Assume I want to tell the government that
    1. it should address the problem of Muslim appeasement
    2. it should turn more free market and
    3. it should stop imposing Hindi as national language, thereby killing the vernaculars.

    What is the best way of going about it? It cannot be just casting of vote. Right? Your thoughts please.


  3. Regarding vaccination, what is wrong if rich get vaccinated first by paying for themselves? The goal is to vaccinate all. So if rich pay more and get vaccinated first, lesser tax-money will be consumed in vaccinating the rest.
    Your thoughts please? What do you think should be ideal vaccination policy?


    1. I have heard Bhandari a few times on youtube. He points out the problems that are evident. I think I would differ with him in his analysis of the nature and the causes of the problems that India faces. Because of those differences, I am optimistic about India and not a pessimist as he is.

      I have made this point before but let me state it briefly. India is desperately poor today (and it has been desperately poor by today’s standards for all of its past) but India will not be so in about 15 years or so. Why? Because there will not be desperate poverty in any part of the world. India would continue to be poor — which is after all are relative measure — but there will be no poverty in India. That’s not because of something that India will do but because of forces outside India get done in the near future.


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